The Constitutional Convention

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787. Like the Second Continental Congress, the convention met in the State House in Philadelphia (today called Independence Hall because the Declaration of Independence was signed there). Many of the fifty-five delegates had represented their colonies in the First and/or Second Continental Congresses. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison were among the delegates. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both on diplomatic missions in Europe, did not attend the convention. Rhode Island sent no representatives. The delegates unanimously chose George Washington as president of the convention.

The delegates’ first decision was to maintain secrecy. They would keep the doors and windows of Independence Hall closed during debate, and they would not discuss the proceedings with any outsiders. The reason for the secrecy was so that each man could speak without fear of outside pressure to change his mind, or fear of reprisal for voting a certain way.

The delegates soon agreed that instead of revising the Articles of Confederation, they would discard them altogether and start fresh. The new document they would prepare would be called the Constitution of the United States.

There were several important historical influences on the Constitution. The first was the influence of the Roman Republic. The second was the British government. The third were the ideas of the Enlightenment. The fourth was their own experience of government within the colonies.

The Roman Republic was an ancient and long-lasting system of government that had a legislative branch (the Senate) and elected officials. Like Americans, Romans did not enjoy universal suffrage; only male property owners could vote, and only men could hold office.

The British government had a long tradition of representation and individual rights. In 1215, the Magna Carta established that the monarch must abide by the laws of the land; it also established certain individual rights and expressed the basic principle that government could succeed only by the consent of the governed. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights specifically listed more individual rights and established that the monarch could not take them away.

A third influence was more recent—the writings of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu. In 1748, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws described and argued for the separation of powers—a three-branch government (executive, legislative, and judicial) in which each branch had certain checks on the authority of the others. Locke insisted on the rights of the governed to design the government that would rule them.

The final important influence on the framers of the Constitution was their own experience of American government, going back to the Mayflower Com- pact of 1620. Since the former British colonies were first settled, they had run efficiently and well on a system of representative government.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights Practice Test

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